Dallas Cowboys penalties: Who and what is to blame?

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports /

Bill Parcells famously once said, “I don’t coach penalties.” The legendary head coach had fallen under scrutiny when his young Dallas Cowboys team started showing a propensity for penalties. He dodged criticism by placing the onus back on the players.

Current head coach Mike McCarthy hasn’t skirted accountability like the Big Tuna, but he hasn’t shown positive results either.  In 2021 the Dallas Cowboys led the NFL in penalties (127 accepted penalties) and their 14 flags in the season-ending loss to San Francisco was a major factor in their premature exit from “the tournament (to borrow another Parcells-ism).”

In the Dallas Cowboys first preseason game of the new season, it was much of the same. Honestly, even worse than before. On Saturday, Dallas committed a whopping 17 penalties. Once again, leading the league, and once again, spelling doom.

Players, coaches, and scheme all carry blame for the Dallas Cowboys windfall of penalties

Not all penalties are created equal. There are important distinctions to make when assigning blame. Sure, the coach is ultimately to blame for everything that happens on the football field but that’s not a very helpful verdict to make if you’re really trying to understand and fix the problem.

Some penalties fall on the players more, some are more on the coaching staff, and others an unavoidable consequence either through poor officiating or inadequate personnel (so blame the league or your front office).

Last season the Dallas Cowboys had 50 pre-snap penalties. Those are 100 percent preventable mistakes that universally fall on the players. A certain amount should be expected, but when the same players make the same mistakes, it becomes an accountability issue that falls on the coaching staff.

The least pre-snap penalized team in the NFL, McCarthy’s old team, only has 23 such penalties last season. Dallas more than doubled them with their league-leading number.

Penalties that occur between the whistles can happen for a variety of reasons. The no. 1 reason a player commits a foul during play isn’t because he wasn’t coached well enough or had a brain-lapse, it’s because he was getting beat.

Cornerbacks hold when they get beat. Offensive linemen hold when they get beat. Pass interference is getting beat. Tripping is getting beat. The list goes on…

They may get beat because they don’t have good technique or it could be they just aren’t good enough. That could be a coaching issue or a personnel issue.

Is it the coaching staff’s fault Tyler Smith got called for holding? Smith was the most penalized player in the draft, he’s undeveloped in his technique and he’s undergoing a position change. What exactly did we expect? Seems to me the front office gets most of the blame this first year.

Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright were getting flagged in coverage. Was the demands of the scheme too challenging for them or are they just outmatched as players? Players and coaches catch blame for that one.

The point is, penalties really need to be broken down on an individual basis. Sometimes it’s just a  bad player trying to survive. Sometimes it’s a boneheaded false start or jump offsides. Sometimes it’s an overly demanding scheme that the personnel is unequipped to handle.

Smart teams find ways to work around these issues. Both Super Bowl teams last year were top-10 fewest penalties last season. Does that mean good players and good teams don’t get penalized as much, and bad players and bad teams get penalized more?

Not really. Both Washington and the New York Giants were top-5 least penalized teams last season, so we know it’s not all about talent. It’s playing within yourself. It’s understanding the personnel and not asking them to do things they can’t.

This is where, “It’s just preseason” comes into play.

This is the time when a coaching staff is supposed to test the limits of their personnel. Can we run Nahshon and KJ out and ask them to operate on an island? Recent evidence says no. Can Josh Ball play tackle without constant help from his TEs and RBs? Recent evidence says no.

The pre-snap penalties are still inexcusable and it’s on the coaching staff to hold the players accountable. But penalties incurred from simply getting beat are learning moments for the coaching staff. They’re fine in the preseason and as long as the coaching staff (and front office) responds correctly, they needn’t be an issue in the regular season.

Must Read. Important observations from the Cowboys first game. light

It all comes down to learning and adapting. Will the Dallas Cowboys be able to do that? We’ll see, won’t we?